It is somewhat ironic that in the same century in which the British Empire reached the peak of its power, the slow process of its dismantling began as well. In a series of wars during the Victorian age Britain extended its empire until it had become the country on which the sun never sets. But such expansion of its territories came at a cost – and some considered the price to high. Especially towards the end of the century disillusionment spread. This is expressed in Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Widow at Windsor," in which the Queen is regarded as a spider which devours the male of the species:
Walk wide o' the Widow at Windsor,The vast empire became more and more difficult to manage and the problems only increased in the twentieth century, when national movements grew in colonies throughout the empire and strove for independence for their countries.
For 'alf of Creation she owns:
We 'ave bought 'er the same with the sword an' the flame,
An' we've salted it down with our bones.
(Poor beggars! – it's blue with our bones!)
In 1839 Lord Durham, the Governor-General of British North-America, recommended limited self-government for what is now Canada. The idea of "responsible government" spread quickly, and some colonies (such as parts of Australia, New Zealand and Cape Colony) were eventually allowed to manage their own affairs under governors appointed by the mother country.
In 1867 three of the colonies of British North-America joined in a confederation and were granted a new status within the British Empire: they were now known as the Dominion of Canada, and became increasingly independent from the UK. This process was repeated in other parts of the empire, namely in those with a larger (former) European population: for example in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. These dominions were often referred as the British Commonwealth.
The independence of the dominions was recognized in the so-called Balfour Declaration of the Imperial Conference, which stated that:
They are autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any respect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.This relationship between dominions and former mother country was then formalised in the Statute of Westminster of 1931.
After WWII more and more colonies gained their independence, until the Colonial Office was finally abolished in 1966. With that, the British Empire officially ceased to exist, even though there are still dependent territories such as the Cayman Islands or Saint Helena.